Volume 10 Number 4
Freedom and the Artist
01 October 1997

Ernst Neizvestney—carver of Khrushchev's tombstone and sculptor of two massive memorials to Stalin's victims—talks to Peter Thwaites.

When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev died in 1971, he asked for his tombstone to be carved by Ernst Neizvestny, the prominent sculptor who had dared to stand up against his attacks on contemporary art nine years earlier.

The two men had crossed swords at an exhibition of modern art in Moscow's Manezh Gallery in 1962. Khrushchev had described the exhibits-including works by Neizvestny, then aged 34-as 'dog shit' because of their failure to conform with the 'Soviet Realism' prescribed by the Communist Party.

Neizvestny retorted that Khrushchev might be Soviet Premier, but he knew nothing about art. The KGB head, Shelepin, who was part of Khrushchev's entourage, threatened to send Neizvestny to the uranium mines. But Neizvestny persisted and, after an hour's discussion, won Khrushchev's grudging respect.

Later, Neizvestny reminisced about the confrontation, 'The danger, the strain and the directness was something I could respond to. Khrushchev spoke directly, which gave me the opportunity to reply directly. When I spoke out honestly and said what I thought, I was able to drive him into a blind alley. But as soon as I began to play the hypocrite, he immediately sensed this and took the upper hand.'

In spite of his temerity, Neizvestny was not arrested. But he came under considerable pressure to write to Khrushchev and recant his aesthetic views. Eventually, he sent a letter, but without the required contrition. As a result he was expelled from the Artists' Union and thus deprived of the legal right to work as an artist in the Soviet Union.

Now 71, Neizvestny has lived in the United States since 1976. His mobile face and penetrating eyes are alive with passion and humour as we talk at Caux, where he has been invited to give a lecture.

His mother-now aged 94-had him baptized as a baby, he says, and he has been a Christian all his life. 'A lot of artists think that creation is like a drug-or like the excitement of sport,' he tells me. 'I don't think so. Art is very very deep in the soul-more like meditation and prayer.'

As a 19-year-old he was a lieutenant in the Russian army in Austria during World War II. He was injured, assumed dead and thrown into the mortuary, where the shock of hitting the ground revived him. His survival escaped the notice of the authorities who 'posthumously' awarded him the Order of the Red Star. This story came to light in 1965-at the height of his difficulties over his 'unpatriotic art'-when a literary magazine published a poem about the heroic 'death' of Lieutenant Neizvestny, and his survival and identity were revealed.

When Neizvestny graduated from the Art Academy after the war, he had no studio-'only stone', he says. 'Other students wanted to set themselves up in a nice studio but I just began to work.' The sculpture which resulted ended up in the collection of former President Kekkonen of Finland.

In the years which followed his meeting with Khrushchev, Neizvestny was thrown out of the Artists' Union twice. A visit to the Dominicans in Poland in 1973, during which he became fascinated with religious art, led to a ban on foreign travel. Khrushchev's monument was unpopular with his successors, and Neizvestny's sculpture for the façade of the Communist headquarters in Ashkhabad caused a scandal when it was unveiled because it was composed around the shape of a cross.

Finally, in 1975, he decided to apply for emigration papers. He was assaulted, his studio was vandalized and irreplaceable works destroyed, and 65 applications for an exit visa were refused before he was allowed to leave in March 1976.

Shortly after his arrival in the West, Neizvestny spoke to the Norwegian art critic Erik Egeland about his life in the Soviet Union. He had survived-and even prospered at times-through his talent, quick wits, political nous, courage and by some amazing luck. Yet others had not survived, and his comments reveal some of the survivor's sense of guilt.

'I never believed in the Communist ideology,' he explained. 'But at the same time I had nothing against decorating Communist cities. I never liked technocrats, but still I accepted their help. But I never compromised on my art.

'I did however often make tactical compromises. I wanted to work, and I only revolted when I was prevented from doing so. For example, I was very nearly on the point of capitulating on the matter of the letter to Khrushchev.

'I have an almost pathological physical courage. But I could lie sleepless at night out of fear that the authorities would confiscate my studio and not let me work.'

After 20 years' work in the tough competitive art world of the United States, Neizvestny is being recognized once more in his former homeland. Last year he was decorated by President Yeltsin and he is currently working on bas reliefs for the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and on a statue of the Archangel Michael for Moscow or Novgorod.

Last year his two massive monuments to Stalin's victims were unveiled. His 17-metre-high The Mask of Sorrow at Magadan, on the Sea of Okhotsk, commemorates people of 27 nations who were held at this transit point for the Gulag Archipelago. The monument, which is in the shape of a crying face, contains a solitary confinement cell and a chapel, with a seven-metre cross at whose foot a girl kneels crying (see photo on p23). Outside, large boulders scattered around the monument are marked with symbols representing all confessions, including Communism and agnosticism.

The second monument-in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia-commemorates the deportation of Kalmyk women, children and old people in 1944-during which over 11,000 died. In the form of a burial mound, the monument displays the symbols of the Kalmyks' culture and Buddhist faith.

'The evil which [swallowed] up the population of two Australias, will not just go away with the passing of time,' said Neizvestny in his lecture at Caux. 'Each day shows more clearly our inescapable duty towards those millions of innocent and unnamed victims, to accept individual responsibility, to purify and renew the nation through a great repentance.'

Such duties, he told me, lie with individuals not with society. 'When I was part of the "Evil Empire" I thought that if we changed everything, the new situation would change the human soul. But after 20 years in exile I have no answers. I have seen free people without spirituality who are no better than a Soviet person. I see no alternative to starting with yourself.'

'An artist cannot be an artist unless he attains a sense of inner freedom,' he said at Caux. 'The most important thing is the honesty, sincerity and self-sufficiency of his own personality. The dignity of the artist is the feeling of oneness with something greater than yourself, and the unbroken link of the finite with the infinite.'

'Freedom' and 'creativity'-the themes of his lecture-are neither easy nor self-indulgent concepts for someone of Neizvestny's experience. He has risked his life for both of them. 'Any person who is denied the opportunity of revealing his gift suffers,' he said. 'For some people, the opportunity to create is the greatest requirement in life.'
Peter Thwaites

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